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The 6 best road trips in Colorado

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The 6 best road trips in Colorado

Colorado is justly famous for its breathtaking landscapes: mountain vistas, sun-drenched plains, red rock mesas and high deserts. The state simply wows. Throughout it all are unexpected historic sites, charming towns plus outdoor recreation of every sort. Miles and miles of well-maintained Scenic & Historic Byways wind through the state’s diverse attractions, providing easy access to it all. So, grab your keys and power up, Colorado awaits! 

Editor’s note: during COVID-19 there may be additional travel restrictions. Check the latest guidance in Colorado before planning a trip, and always follow local government health advice.

The stunning drive over Independence Pass is one of Colorado’s epic drives © JurgaR / Getty Images

Further reading: When to visit Colorado

Independence Pass

Start– Twin Lakes; End – Aspen; Distance 27 mi/44 km

The ribbon of road between the historic community of Twin Lakes and the swanky town of Aspen is the backbone of one of Colorado’s most epic drives. Part of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, views here are cinematic and spectacular – swatches of snow visible along the ridges just below the knife edge of peaks, tundra blooms at the top of the pass, where at 12,095ft you’ll be on the edge of the Continental Divide. This is your own IMAX moment. 

Though the pass is closed in the winter, the rest of the year the drive is short and sweet. Consider exploring it a bit. Check out Twin Lakes Reservoir, an angler’s and paddle-boarder’s dream; its shores are dotted with historic ruins, including Interlaken, once Colorado’s largest resort, built in 1879. Or head for a hike on Mt Elbert, one of the ‘easier’ 14ers in the state (start your hike early!). And don’t miss Independence near Aspen – a ghost town dotted with weathered wood cabins, the first mining site in the Roaring Fork Valley, offering a window back in time.  

Introducing Colorado

Top of the Rockies 

Start – Minturn; End – Aspen; Distance – 115 mi/185 km

If you liked Independence Pass, extend it to include this Scenic Byway. One of the highest in the US, the road seldom drops below 9,000 feet – literally, scratching the top of the Rockies. It takes you over three spectacular mountain passes, crosses the Continental Divide, takes in two Colorado giants (Mt Elbert and Mt Massive) and rolls through historic Coloradan towns. And if outdoors recreation is your thing, the route passes through three National Forests offering countless opportunities to hike, climb, fish and ski. Not bad for a day’s drive.  

Along the way, tiny Minturn is big on small town charm; in the summer, pick up road provisions at the bustling farmers market – the kids can pet goats while you shop. In Leadville, learn all about Colorado’s rags-to-riches mining beginnings in its National Historic District, including the National Mining Hall of Fame, while Twin Lakes offers opportunities to wander through a historic mining camp. At end of the tour is Aspen, one of the state’s most posh and cultured places – a must stop.  

Further reading: Top 5 best hikes in Colorado

Rocky Mountain Wildflowers Of Colorado
Rocky Mountain wildflowers in Colorado during sunset. ©Rob Greebon/500px/Getty Images

Trail Ridge Rd 

Start – Estes Park; End – Grand Lake; Distance – 47 mi/76 km

Rocky Mountain National Park’s signature drive, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuously paved through-road in North America, climbing to 12,183 ft in a matter of minutes. It follows the same path that generations of Ute, Arapaho and Apache used as a trade route to traverse Milner Pass. Expect outrageous views: snowcapped peaks, meandering streams, tight switchbacks across the Continental Divide, high-country meadows, wildflowers galore and, with luck, some wildlife too. Be sure to stop at some of the countless turnoffs to explore tundra trails or, at least, to take selfies from the top of the world. Closed in winter and spring, due to snow.

Further reading: Colorado’s best beaches

The bright yellows of fall make the Peak to Peak particularly gorgeous ©Bob Pool/Shutterstock

Peak to Peak Hwy

Start – Estes Park; End – Nederland; Distance – 42 mi/68 km

Colorado’s first Scenic Byway, Peak to Peak Highway is a year-round hit, winding past towering mountains like Longs Peak (14,255ft) and lush alpine valleys, plus a handful of one-horse towns. Famous for its fall colors, autumn envelopes the mountains in a quilt of gold, yellow and orange and brings bugling elks searching for mates…not to mention carloads of leaf peepers. 

Set aside a couple hours for the drive. Before leaving Estes Park, enjoy the riverwalk or take a spooky ghost tour of the historic Stanley Hotel. Along the route, consider stopping in Ward, a former boom town and bohemian magnet that has settled into an artfully ramshackle state of disrepair or Peaceful Valley, notable for its little onion-domed church perched on a hillside. Or hike in one of the national forests and wilderness areas (the route passes three: Arapaho, Roosevelt and Indian Peaks). At the end, stroll through Nederland, a hippie holdout known for its quirky shops and colorful cafes.  

Further reading: Introducing Colorado’s National Parks

Bent's Fort SW Interior
There is much to be learned about the complicated Southwest © BWBImages / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Santa Fe Trail  

Start – Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site; End – Trinidad; Distance – 116 mi/187 km  

History buffs will love this day-long drive along the Santa Fe Trail, the Old West’s first ‘highway,’ once extending from Missouri to New Mexico. It is an incredible opportunity to learn about the complexities of the Southwest. Sun-drenched prairies and wheat fields, sugar-beet farms and railroad yards unfurl on this open two-lane highway, providing a rich mix of history and natural wonder.   

The Trail’s signature sight is the phenomenal Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Perched on the Arkansas River and the erstwhile US-Mexico border, the fort marked a cultural crossroads where Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Mexicans and Americans met, mingled, traded and co-existed. While it was initially built for trade, Bent’s fort was later conscripted by the US military and is a strong reminder of this presence in Coloraodo. Trade declined as thousands of settlers poured into the frontier after the Louisiana Purchase, and in particular after a cholera epidemic negatively impacted the region’s Indigenous tribes.

Nearby in Comanche National Grassland, homestead ruins and authentic Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible; Picketwire Dinosaur Tracksite, the largest documented dinosaur tracksite in North America, is a highlight of the park (4WD and reservations required). Make time to check out Trinidad too. Tucked into a chimney-top mesa, the town was once an important limb of the Santa Fe Trail; the fabulous Trinidad History Museum tells the nitty gritty. 

Further reading: Best free things to do in Colorado

Highway with trees in fall color and stormy sky.  Walsenburg, Colorado.
© Dan Ballard / Getty Images/Aurora Open

Highway of Legends 

Start – Trinidad; End – Walsenburg; Distance – 82 mi/132 km 

Steeped in mining folklore and Native American legends, the sleepy towns and majestic mountain passes of the Highway of Legends provide a beautiful detour from the I-25 throughway, escorting visitors through some of southeastern Colorado’s most glorious countryside. Budget two hours to drive the route, more if you stop to take in the sights.  

Historic Trinidad is one of the shining stars of the route, its Main Street an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail and later, the site of Mother Jones marching with striking miners – the Trinidad History Museum offers an excellent primer. Passing through Cokedale, the rows and rows of coal ovens are unmissable, standing like forgotten sentinels along the road. Two charming towns are worth a stop too: Cuchara for its views of the Spanish Peaks and the Great Dikes that jut from meadows to mountains, and La Veta, where there are more churches than paved roads. And this being Colorado, there are plenty of recreational opportunities to be had: Cucharas River offers terrific fishing, while the hiking in the Spanish Peaks Wilderness is some of the best in the state.  

USA, Colorado, Montezuma, Palace and Mesa Verde National Park
Learn about Ancestral Puebloans and Indigenous Americans on the Trail of the Ancients ©darekm101/Getty Images

Trail of the Ancients 

Start – Mesa Verde National Park; End – Ute Mountain Tribal Park; Distance – 113 mi/182 km  

Trail of the Ancients is the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeology. A beautiful and eye-opening route, it winds through the canyons, mountains and plains once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans and later nomadic Navajo, Apache and Ute tribes. Though the route is just over 100 miles, the sites themselves are fascinating and worth lingering over, making this a good multi-day trip.  

Mesa Verde National Park is the crown jewel of the route, home to over 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings – a guided ranger tour is highly recommended. Just north, the Anasazi Heritage Center has interesting films, hands-on exhibits and artifacts dating to AD 400. Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep National Monument are Ancestral Puebloan treasures that have been largely left alone for hundreds of years – perfect for DIY exploration. And Ute Mountain Tribal Park houses a number of lesser-known cliff dwellings; petroglyphs and even shards of original pottery can even be seen here (Ute guide required for all visits). 

This article was originally published in February 2012 and updated in 2021 by Liza Prado.

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Source : Lonelyplanet

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